It's a literary parlor game: Is Allan Gurganus the descendant of William Faulkner or Eudora Welty? Or was it one of the Johns: Updike? O'Hara? Cheever?
As tempting as it might be to play this game — connecting the author dots to understand a writer through his lineage — we risk minimalizing the talents of the writer who is the focus.
In the case of an author as original as Gurganus, that would be a huge mistake.
Upon hearing about the forthcoming publication of "Local Souls," Gurganus' first book after a 12-year silence, my mind flooded with one of his most legendary characters. I hadn't really thought about her since 1989, when Gurganus' novel "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" was published.
The distinctive voice was that of Lucy Marsden, the 99-year-old who, from her nursing home, tells the story of her marriage to the last survivor of the Civil War. She's the veteran of the veteran — and she's a great storyteller.
The voices in "Local Souls" are different but no less distinctive. Gurganus invites readers back to his native terrain: mythical Falls, N.C. This handsome book features a two-page pen and ink illustrated map of the town (population 6,803), complete with the First Baptist Church, Dairy Queen and the high school where "Sweeney Todd" is performed. (The first novella, "Fear Not," opens there.)
While Marsden was a tour guide through the Old South, with its crumbling plantations and Civil War legacy, "Local Souls" introduces us to the less restrictive New South, one that is still burdened by an insularity despite the Internet's arrival.
Each novella in "Local Souls," with its first-person narrators, loops and swirls, is guided not by perfectly sequenced plot points but by the centrifugal force of memory, heart and a playful, agile mind.
In this loosely linked triptych, "Fear Not" is suspenseful, some might say gothic. The daughter of a banker who is decapitated in a boating accident is forced to relinquish her baby for adoption and later begins to search for the child, though she doesn't know the child's gender.
In the second novella, "Saints Have Mothers," a high school valedictorian disappears in Africa, and her mother becomes famous as a result.
My favorite, "Decoy," is a sly, subtle novella about two men in which the doctor-patient relationship becomes slightly eroticized until natural disaster intervenes. The narrator of "Decoy" muses: "Emotion never behaves. Like mercury, that particular material is seriously hard to grasp."
Let these novellas bring attention to the overlooked art form. They will please readers who have been waiting for more from an admired writer who is funny, appropriately dark and can magically twirl a sentence.
By Allan Gurganus
Liveright, 345 pages, $25.95